by Jonathan Ogle.
The world’s biggest asset managers have a big problem. Companies such as BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street manage trillions of dollars of investment on behalf of millions of investors. Even while they sign commitments to make their own office operations carbon neutral, they have been investing hundreds of billions of dollars in destroying the future. Climate activists and even investors are increasingly paying attention to these investment firms’ large-scale support for fossil fuels, deforestation, and other climate destructive projects, which often directly violate the human rights of indigenous peoples and frontline communities.
The amount of investment is not trivial. As Bill McKibben wrote in The New Yorker in September 2021, financial firms are providing “the oxygen on which the fire of global warming burns.” Until now, regardless of public discourse about climate change, fossil fuel companies and other polluters have been able to count on an unceasing flood of hundreds of billions of dollars to continue to expand and pollute. That reliable investment stream props up perceived value and maintains the fiction that these are “good” investments. But signs of change are in the air.
Activists and advocates in the international BlackRock’s Big Problem campaign succeeded in getting BlackRock to start slowly taking climate change into account. They have a long way to go, but it shows that change is possible, and pressure from us is the key to making it happen. BlackRock is the largest asset manager in the world. The second largest is Vanguard. It’s time for Vanguard to step up.
Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT, pronounced “equate”) is a grassroots, nonviolent action group including Quakers and people of diverse beliefs, who join with millions of people around the world fighting for a just and sustainable economy. In late 2021, just as the EQAT board was discerning that it was time to lay down our last campaign, we were invited to take on a key role in the international campaign to shift Vanguard, based in Malvern, Pennsylvania near EQAT’s Philadelphia roots. It felt like way opening.
Vanguard directs the investment of $8 trillion in assets. That makes Vanguard a significant shareholder in an astoundingly large list of major corporations. Vanguard is the world’s largest investor in coal and one of the two largest investors in oil and natural gas. Vanguard has also invested billions of dollars in some of the largest, dirtiest fossil fuel projects currently planned or being developed. Moreover, as a shareholder, Vanguard has shown an appalling lack of support for climate-related shareholder resolutions.
As part of the international Vanguard’s Very Big Problem Campaign, EQAT aims to get Vanguard to use its leverage as a massive shareholder and investor to support climate action, not continued destruction. Vanguard can begin immediately with voting for pro-climate shareholder resolutions and pressuring companies across the board to develop aggressive climate plans which prioritize human rights and indigenous rights.
Currently a laggard in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) offerings, they need to make fossil fuel screened ESG funds their default offering. Finally, they should implement an exit strategy to divest from fossil fuels and other companies that are not committing to acting now on climate change.
Vanguard has built their $8 trillion business out of the retirement savings of millions of people earning a middle class income, yet they are using that money in ways that damage frontline communities, fuel climate change, and destroy the future the company claims to be helping people save for. Whether we live next to an incinerator or pipeline or far from one, whether we have a retirement account with Vanguard or are barely making ends meet, we all have a stake in the future Vanguard is destroying.
In my life, I have found myself attracted to growing food, reducing my personal waste, imagining myself living a life of material simplicity. But taking care of this precious Earth requires us to not ignore the money. If the asset managers redirect their investments, massive streams of money can be diverted away from climate chaos now.
Jonathan Ogle teaches high school students at a Friends School and currently serves on the EQAT Board. Learn more at eqat.org.